Gewürztraminer is one of the most pungent wine varietals, easy for even the beginning taster to recognize by its heady, aromatic scent. While the French have achieved the greatest success with this grape and its name may be German, the history of Gewürztraminer began in Italy’s Tyrollean Alps, near the village of Termeno (Tramin) in Alto Adige.
Since the Middle Ages, the parent variety traminer has grown there. Traminer also is grown widely throughout Eastern Europe, but neither abundantly nor very successfully. With hardly any of the characteristic of its spicy offspring, traminer berries are pale green and make much less interesting or appealing wine, hardly scented at all.
Like pinot noir, however, traminer vines do have a propensity to mutate. One of these mutations, a few centuries ago, resulted in a vine that produces dark pinkish-brown, spotted berries and makes very distinctive and heady wine.
The French began calling this prized clone traminer musqué, traminer parfumé, or traminer aromatique; the Germans roter traminer; and the Italians traminer rosé, traminer rosso, or termener aromatico. In the late 19th century, the Alsatians began calling this vine gewürztraminer, although it wasn’t until 1973 that this name was officially sanctioned. Wine texts often report that “gewürz” translates from German as “spicy”, but considering the list of various synonyms, the more likely contextual meaning is “perfumed”.
Alsace has achieved the most success with Gewürztraminer. Even here some producers give it less priority than other varietals and make accordingly dull wines. Those houses that pay specific attention to and take particular pride in their Gewürztraminer include Léon Beyer, Schlumberger, and Zind-Humbrecht.
While the gewürztraminer vine is prized for its wine, it can be despised for its viticultural difficulty. It buds early in the Spring, so it is particularly susceptible to damage from frost. Gewürztraminer also has weak defenses against viral vine infections. Even healthy vines are not very productive, with small clusters, so there is a great temptation for growers to over-crop, which results in dilute, lightweight wine.
The berries, with their thick and tough skins, can attain high sugar levels of amazing concentration. Alcohol levels, therefore, can get quite high in dry versions. Conversely, low acidity and high pH in Gewürztraminer are problematic. Close monitoring and precise harvest timing are critical. Early picking retains acid, but without long “hang time” distinctive varietal character fails to develop. Pleasant results are nearly impossible in warm climates.
At the Colmar viticultural station in Alsace and at Geisenheim in Germany work is underway developing clones that bud and ripen later, produce larger fruit clusters, with more consistent and greater production levels and that are virus-free. The challenge is to gain these improvements in economy while retaining gewürztraminer’s unique character and intensity.
The dark pink color of gewürztraminer grapes results in wines colored from light to dark golden yellow with a copper tone, depending upon the fruit ripeness. Gewürztraminer is quite full-bodied, more so than most any other white wine type. In fact, the combination of its strong, heady, perfumey scent, exotic lychee-nut flavor and heavy-oily texture can be overwhelming and tiring to many palates. There is a slight tendency to bitterness that seems exacerbated by ripeness, so a light touch is needed at the wine press. Many makers finish their Gewürztraminer with a mask of residual sugar. Gewürztraminer can be made into an excellent dessert wine, in fact.
The most frequently encountered (but not exclusive) smell and/or flavor elements found in Gewürztraminer-based wines include:
|Gewürztraminer Smell and/or Flavor Elements|
|Varietal Aromas/Flavors:||Processing Bouquets/Flavors:|
Gewürztraminer wines are an excellent match for fresh fruit and cheeses and a good complement to many simple fish and chicken dishes, especially recipes that include capsaicin (hot pepper) spices, oriental five spice, or even curry.
Due to limited popularity and viticultural and production difficulties, gewürztraminer acreage has remained relatively static in most world appellations for several years. Encouraging signs of new success come from fairly recent plantings in New Zealand 1(apparently since 1990, NZ Gewürztraminer acreage has see-sawed from a low of 210 to as much as 540 acres) and the Pacific Northwest 2(Oregon total 192 acres; Washington, 632 ac).
The nominees for Best Supporting Appellation in California Gewürztraminer 3(1,475 average total California acreage, 1999-2009) are: Mendocino County (~298 ac), Monterey County (~716 ac), Russian River Valley, and Sonoma County (~175 ac). California wineries that have consistently produced outstanding results are so few that they bear mentioning: Navarro grows Gewürztraminer in Mendocino and makes stellar and award-winning wines in both dry and dessert styles. Thomas Fogarty makes an excellent dry style from Monterey County grapes. Fetzer makes a lightly-sweet version that is always serviceable, reasonably-priced and, occasionally, an excellent example.
by Jim LaMar
Appellation America’s Gewürztraminer page lists appellations and producers that specialize in or feature this grape.
1 According to the NZ Winegrowers Institute, as reported by Martin Gillion, Editor / Publisher WineNZ magazine
2 Oregon and Washington plantings according to the USDA 2006 Grape Acreage Reports (posted February, 2007)
3 California plantings according to the USDA Grape Acreage Report 2007 (published April, 2008)